Late on Sunday, England’s squad gathered for a few drinks. They had just won the second ODI to draw level in the three match series against Australia. But this was no lauding of a job half done. Birthdays were on the agenda.
Eoin Morgan turned 34 earlier in the week. Jos Buttler 30 the week before. Jason Roy had also turned 30 in July, and a member of the backroom staff had also turned a year older. Originally the toast was to be just for Morgan, but the limited-overs captain insisted on including everyone whose celebrations had been stifled by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The small hours after the penultimate men’s international of the summer were the only workable timeframe. Odd, you might think, considering they have spent a couple of months in each other’s pockets, with nowhere else to go. But finding space between the constant flow of matches and practices, while working within strict health guidelines, proved difficult. And, after three months of sanitised living, even organised downtime had started to become a chore.
After the third ODI on Wednesday at Emirates Old Trafford, there was not the usual reminiscing that wraps up a summer of competitive international cricket. No beers with the opposition, perhaps one of the most heartening traditions that carries through to present day. The match itself was lost, Australia taking the decider by three wickets and the series 2-1, ending England’s hopes of closing out the season with wins against every side, in every format played.
Two hours after Mitchell Starc hit the winning runs, those based up said their goodbyes and sped home to reacquaint themselves with normality as quickly as possible. For seven of them, an early wake-up call on Thursday beckoned.
Eoin Morgan, Jofra Archer, Moeen Ali, Tom Banton, Tom and Sam Curran left at 6am together with a number of Australian players to make their way to the UAE for the Indian Premier League via private jet organised by the ECB, Cricket Australia and the BCCI, and funded by the respective IPL franchises. Buttler would make the same journey with his family later in the day.
Thus, wistful reflection will have to be done remotely and independently, in keeping with the real world’s restriction. But as a collective, English cricket can look at the last few months with pride.
The sport has always been an antidote to life’s challenges, and those properties have not dimmed during the pandemic. Though it feels distasteful to say the return of sport has improved lives that have been affected by coronavirus, the certainty is that cricket’s knack of distraction has never been more welcome.
There was the opening defeat by West Indies, and subsequent come-from-behind series win. Buttler and Woakes pulling off a similar heist in the first Test against Pakistan. Ireland’s joyous ODI win. Zak Crawley’s double hundred. Stuart Broad’s 500. Jimmy Anderson’s 600. Sticking one on the Aussies in the T20s and wearing one in the ODIs.
What made these all the more remarkable was the intensity of play. Every excuse for a lack of intensity and struggle was served on the table, but none were taken. Across all teams there was a sense that the effort to get these matches played deserved to be reciprocated.
On the field, it was high quality. On the balance sheet, it registered as salvation: a winding body blow of £100million instead of a £380m knockout.
It is the latter that brings us neatly to our concluding question in all this. What has it cost? Financially and emotionally, the answer is plenty. Chartered flights, constant private testing and hotel rooms barely scratch the surface.
The ECB’s confidential hotline to help players deal with mental health has been leant on during these few months, and those in the bubble were urged to be vigilant to spot and support anyone who may need help. “When guys have struggled they have come forward,” said Morgan. “When that’s not being managed, guys hide away and let things bubble over. But it’s something we will have to stay on top of.” Indeed, returning to the outside world will not be seamless.
Because beyond the frivolity of birthdays were moments that do not come around again next year. First words and steps have been missed. Families have struggled with situations and illness. Buttler’s father was admitted to hospital the night before he combined with Woakes for that win against Pakistan. Dan Lawrence, into the bubble with hopes for a Test debut, left due to the passing of his mother. Others have also endured the loss of friends and family during this time.
This has not just been limited to the players. Broadcasters, events staff, caterers, hotel workers and ground staff have made similar sacrifices. The story of one member interacting with his infant son for the first time in a month through two layers of metal gating made you realise the merits of the bio-bubble as the safest place in the United Kingdom were down to it being the most isolating.
Even with a bumper broadcast deal salvaged, further long-term cuts will still be made as confirmed by chief executive Tom Harrison earlier in the week. The ECB have been commendable throughout the summer and this transparency should be lauded. But among their employees, many of whom left Manchester to assist the running of the women’s one in Derby, the sense of impending redundancies is a cloud that no milestone or compelling session can dissipate.
If 2019’s international summer was about revelling in cricket’s glory, 2020’s has been one of appreciating the restorative qualities of its wistfulness and competition. But as it moves forward, the consideration is if the outlay of these bubbles and what it asks of people is worth the toll.
And while there is immense gratitude for what has been given, now that the bubble has burst, some of those involved will have reason to conclude that it was not.
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